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It wasn’t my intention to follow them at first, but as soon as I heard the voice of the elderly lady standing before the painting Quarto Stato by Pellizza da Volpedo, I decided to spy on them: she talked about art with so much love and depth that I was immediately enthralled. We were all standing at the helicoidal staircase, the one that leads up to the museum. The rain outside was beating down on the immense windows, and looking down the staircase the Guggenheim in New York came to mind.
The woman was wearing an odd pair of duck-yellow glasses, a wrinkled raincoat and she was in the company of a young man, who I decided was his grandson. He was silent with a dour expression and his hands in his pockets, scuffing around in a pair of baggy, low-waisted jeans. She was talking perhaps more to herself than to her companion, but undaunted, she kept talking. «Do you see this gigantic canvas? It’s become somewhat emblematic of the twentieth century in Italy, but I’m sure you’ve seen a copy of it in the catalogue that your mother keeps on the desk at home. It’s called The Fourth State, which refers to the working class. See how there’s a woman in the front row holding a baby? That’s not very common. I mean, it’s not easy to find a woman in front of a group of marching workers. It was a new sign at the beginning of the century, when it was painted. Notice how the beauty of this painting lies in how the brim of the hat casts a shadow over the eyes of the two men in the front. It’s all a question of the light, look at the crowd coming out of the dark towards the light. It’s the light of consciousness.»
The boy kept quiet, shuffling back and forth as if he were trying to find the right perspective. «I’m very happy you decided to come with me, you can’t see Milan without coming here. You know, this museum was only inaugurated six months ago and contains the works of the most important artists from the last century. Names like Picasso, De Chirico, Balla, Modigliani, Sironi, Braque, Fontana, Manzoni; almost all of them come from the Jucker collection, a wealthy Jewish family. Then we’ll go up higher and you’ll see the view, it’ll stay in your mind. We’ll eat something. When we go back to Sydney you’ll be able to say that you had a snack just a few metres from the steeples of the Duomo. The most gothic and cultural snack of your life, seated above a hundred years of art.»
«See that building?» asks the woman facing the window and pointing to a building just next to the Duomo. «It’s Palazzo Reale, which will continue to host exhibitions of the great artists of the past. As a girl, me and my grandfather, when we lived here, we always met right in front of the door, on this side of the piazza.» As the grandmother ignored her grandson’s impatient sighs I got even closer, curious, pretending that I was getting a closer look at the Femme Nue by Picasso. I didn’t want to miss a world.
«On the last floor, there’s restaurant with a room that faces directly onto the Duomo: it’s an incredible spectacle. The restaurant is closed now, it opens in the evening, but they serve exquisite desserts. You’ll have the best snack of your life. Every day at this time, fresh cakes arrive from the family pastry shop to replenish the restaurant. The same owners run other restauramts here too; one is Giacomo Bistrot, which is mentioned by Easton Ellis in American Psycho, your favourite book,» says the woman.
The boy’s expression changes, his raised eyebrow shows a hint of interest despite his intention to remain in sullen silence. I already knew that there was a café and restaurant on the last floor, and that to get there one had to go all the way down to the ticket counter and then take the special elevator. I also knew about the breathtaking view of the spires of the Duomo and the Piazza, but I hadn’t known about the possibility of a special snack. The elevator opened onto a room with colourful walls, but the grandmother walked up to the counter without looking around: we found ourselves da Giacomo all’Arengario, the restaurant of the Museo del Novecento.
«Could you bring us two teas and a portion of bomba? Thank you,» says the woman to waiter in perfect Italian. I order the same thing. A plate arrives: a mountain of whipped cream posed upon a thin layer of pastry. The boy remained still and just as indifferent towards the dessert as he was during the visit to the museum, but he takes a fork and begins to take small bites. His face begins to change. «Good,» he says, at a certain point, his mouth full.
True. It was good, but in almost an excessive way – incorrect, almost immoral. It tasted like cream, but in truth it was a cloud of mascarpone cream studded with ripe wild strawberries – still firm – which resisted just enough on the palate before melting in my mouth. But the most important part was the base, which wasn’t just a simple shortbread, but a puff pastry that, despite the cream’s attempt to moisten it, inexplicably maintained its crunch and its contrast with the elusiveness of the rest.
«Now that you’ve been a bit sweetened, maybe you’ll answer this question. What was your favourite painting?» Asked the woman with a pleased air. «The portrait of Paul Guillaume,» answered the boy, still with a white moustache over his top lip. «But why did Modigliani paint him with one eye open and the other shut?»
The elderly lady smiled and took off her glasses; she began to clean one lens at a time, very slowly. «I don’t know,» she says, «but Modigliani does. And he answered that question by saying, ‘Because with one eye, you see the world, and with the other you see inside yourself.’»